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Drug Power and Power Drug


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 6/2010, P. 57-61
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Colombia was long regarded as the most dangerous country in the world. Seventy per cent of global cocaine production come from there. Under President Álvaro Uribe the safety of citizens has admittedly improved. But the country is still far from being a state under the rule of law.


Wherever you come in Colombia, whether to Bogota or Medellin, Santa Marta or Popayán, you will see everywhere in the streets of cities - police. Police officers are at every street corner in the centre. No ride on intercity roads without police or military controls. The defense budget has tripled under President Álvaro Uribe. More than 400.000 persons ensure "democratic safety" in the country, plus a network of more than four million informants.

Europeans feel creepy with this. But the President has certainly reached his goal, for which the population is very grateful to him: the number of murders and kidnappings on the whole fell sharply, although it increased again in the past year in the big cities. But you can go now in the country from one city to another without running too great a risk of being robbed or kidnapped on the road. The guerrillas have been driven back into impassable mountain or forest areas. Business, too, is glad, because due to the improved security situation more foreign investments flow back into the country. As late as February 2002, after the assassination of a senator and the kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote, "Can the decaying Colombian State yet be saved at all?" Today, after six years held hostage in the jungle, Ingrid Betancourt is free again. And nobody speaks of a decaying state after years of strong economic growth, even though after the collapse of illegal financial investment systems hundreds of thousands of Colombian small investors have lost their savings.

The President feels comfortable in his historic role as the saviour of his country. He has a stable majority in both houses of parliament; and in the elections in late May he wants to compete once more, for the third term of office. As in most Latin American countries, in Colombia the direct re-election of the head of state is admittedly prohibited by the Constitution. But across the continent in recent years this ban has increasingly been relaxed, as it is shown by the developments in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

In 2010 Colombia celebrates the 200 anniversary of the founding of the state - even though the first republic lasted only six years. In Bogotá on July 20, 1810 there was an uprising against the Spanish colonialists, and subsequently the republic was proclaimed. But in 1816 the Spaniards reconquered the country. More than 7000 "separatists" were executed, others were imprisoned. This was the hour of the most famous freedom fighter in South America, Simón Bolívar. Under his leadership the Colombians were in 1819 able to inflict a devastating defeat on the Spanish colonial army. Still in the same year the Republic of Colombia was proclaimed again; it then included also today's Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador. But due to internal disputes, the Republic of Great Colombia broke to pieces already after a decade. Venezuela and Ecuador seceded and declared their independence.

Also after independence, the history of the country remained shaped by violence, divisions and internal conflicts. The two major parties of the liberals and conservatives developed and determined until some few years ago the destiny of the country.



The Liberals oriented towards Europe. They stood for federalism, strict separation of church and state and reform orientation. The Conservatives built their power on the oligarchy and the Catholic Church. They represented the concept of a centralized and authoritarian state. Throughout the entire 19th century there were bloody conflicts between the two parties. A key issue was the so-called religious issue: the dispute over the position of the Catholic Church in society. Periods of open hostility towards the Church - in 1863 the country even adopted an atheistic Constitution, which was repealed already in 1886 - alternated with periods in which the Church was regarded as the moral authority par excellence.


Rebels and Revolutionaries

The conflict involving the heaviest losses was named after its length "Thousand Days War" (1899-1902), in which about one hundred thousand people lost their lives - of a population of nearly four million at that time. Today the country has 45 million inhabitants. 87.5 per cent of them are Catholics.

The last, especially cruelly waged civil war, named Violencia (1948-1957), broke out after the murder of a popular liberal leader and cost the lives of two to three hundred thousand people. This at last led the two major parties to the conviction that it was better to cooperate. But this insight, commendable in itself, is the main reason for the permanent conflict in which the country lives ever since. Liberals and Conservatives established a system of proportional representation, presented alternately the President, and shared all the important posts and institutions among each other; the result was patronage, clientelism, corruption and the loss of democratic control. Candidates from other parties were allowed to stand only on the lists of the two major parties.

In the sixties, dissatisfaction grew in the country, at universities and in intellectual circles. Social unrest was the result. Voter turnout dropped to less than thirty per cent. In those years the three historic left-wing guerrilla movements emerged. The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) oriented itself towards the Soviet Union, the ELN (National Liberation Army) towards Cuba, and - split off from the latter - EPL (People's Liberation Army) towards Maoist China. FARC was for a long time strongly supported by the rural population, the ELN mainly by the urban middle class. However, due to their criminal methods of financing - including kidnapping, blackmailing, drug trafficking - in recent times they have forfeited much sympathy.

For the Colombian church, too, the sixties after the council were a time of upheaval. Poverty and social injustice were increasingly recognized as a theological challenge, and as a political-spiritual task. The priest and professor of sociology Camilo Torres, who originated from a prominent family, made his studies in the Belgian Leuven, and worked as university chaplain in Bogotá, regarded the poverty of the people as the greatest challenge to faith. He wanted to overcome the intolerable ideological chasm in the country and sought therefore to conduct the dialogue between Christians and Marxists. "Why should we argue about whether the soul is mortal or immortal, when we both know that hunger is fatal?" With great success and strong sympathy by the population Torres began to build the Frente Unido, the United Front. However, he became more and more a tragic figure. After internal disputes he joined disappointed the ELN guerrillas and died in a skirmish with the military in February 1966. Until today it is unknown where his grave is.

Two years later in Medellin the famous second general assembly of the Latin American bishops took place. The church leaders encouraged the creation of base communities, called for a firm option for the poor as a starting point of every pastoral action, and denounced sharply corruption and drug trafficking. Because of these courageous words and the pioneering initiatives, especially in Europe the Latin American Church was regarded as prophetic, young and groundbreaking for the "continent of hope". However, there was and is also a strong conservative countermovement. In alliance with influential clerics the ruling elite tried with some success to restore the authoritarian-conservative line of the church.

Since then, hardly anything changed in Colombia. The extremely unequal land distribution continues to cause a massive rural migration. Guerrillas and state security forces wear down each other in a military stalemate. Peaceful attempts to change society are prevented by legal or criminal means.

A particular evil is the existence of numerous well-armed, militarily trained gangs. There have always been armed groups with the help of which the landlords protected themselves from the socio-revolutionary demands of the rural population. But then the government began, under pressure from the United States following its "doctrine of national security", to deploy illegal armed groups not only against the guerrillas but also against real and alleged opponents. And finally, wealthy circles and drug dealers formed paramilitary groups, in order to protect themselves from kidnapping and extortion. In the eighties, out of these roots that sort of paramilitary activity crystallized, as we know it today: illegal armed groups in the service of state terrorism, in the service of - also multinational - companies, in order to annex land and to wipe out union movements, and time and again in the service of organized crime, the drug mafia. In the last 25 years at least 25.000 civilians fell victim to the fury of those ruthless death squads.


The Rise of the President

The current President Álvaro Uribe is one of the most dubious office-holders in the 200-year history of independent Colombia. Already in 1982, at the age of thirty the lawyer won the mayoralty in Medellín, the second largest city in the country, capital of the important department of Antioquia, and then headquarters of the notorious drug cartel of Pablo Escobar. President Belisario Betancour, however, dismissed him already after a few months - because of his good connections to the drug mafia, it was said unofficially.



In a document from the U.S. Department of Defense of 1991 106 persons are mentioned who in the opinion of the Authority cooperate with the drug cartel of Medellín. In point 82 the following note says, "Álvaro Uribe, a Colombian politician and senator who from a high government level cooperates with the Medellin cartel." Today, the same politician is the most loyal ally of the United States in Latin America. Last year, the U.S. erected about a dozen military bases in the country, including one in close vicinity to the border with Venezuela.

In 1986 Uribe was elected to the Senate. During his tenure as governor of Antioquia (1995 to 1997) he promoted the creation of so-called security cooperatives, a sort of private militia groups that caused a huge boom of the paramilitary model. When in 2002 the conservative government of Andrés Pastrana failed in the attempt to reach reconciliation with the country's largest guerrilla movement FARC, this was the largest election gift for Álvaro Uribe Vélez. He left the Liberal Party and stood as an independent candidate. He promised the merciless military fight against the guerrillas and won the elections with an absolute majority, though with a turnout of less than fifty per cent. Since then, the rigid party system in Colombia has changed significantly. The two major parties are marginalized. The political structure is strongly based on the personality of a caudillo, a charismatic leader; a role that Uribe splendidly fills. The powers of the President are considerable. Large parts of the economy and the media support him. Gustavo Gallón Giraldo, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, criticizes "There is a whole mafia sector that has taken possession of a large part of the state. A number of scandals relates directly to the Head of State. Many of those who are directly associated with the President, and co-workers of his election campaign are involved in serious criminal cases." Only recently a new scandal came to light. From a fund for the promotion of small-scale production of the Ministry of Agriculture dozens of large agricultural enterprises were sponsored by large sums; these in turn "donated" this money to Uribe's re-election campaign.

In "Fischer World Almanac 2010" an escalating spying is noticed. Senior military officials, press representatives, prosecutors, judges, but also government officials were illegally monitored and tapped on a large scale by the secret service. The accusation is heard repeatedly that this was ordered by the President himself. And the situation of refugees is still worrying. In 2008 290.000 people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, in the previous year there were 305.000. About three to four million Colombians are regarded as refugees in their own country.



In his international bestseller "One Hundred Years of Solitude" the Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez tells the story of the imaginary village of Macondo, the inhabitants of which are after a long period of isolation dragged into the Latin American struggle for freedom and justice. Macondo has become a symbol of magical realism, the art form in which reality is linked to fabulous and fantastical events, in order to reveal a deeper layer of reality. Through García Márquez "Macondian" has become a synonym for "Colombian" - at least for a Colombia that stands for ingenuity, imagination, talent for improvisation, sparkling wit and a little madness, all this mixed with a good shot of superstition, miraculous events and mythical stories.

But García Márquez is also a kind of social conscience of the Colombians, at least of those who work for a democratic, humane country. The writer did not attend political rallies and avoided both revolutionary pathos and Marxist ideology.



Nevertheless, his reports had a greater revolutionary potential than the political work of most of his contemporaries. Since his reports were carefully researched, they provided the censorship with no target. And the readers recognized in each line the Colombian reality. Also his later stories and novels retained - in a metaphorical sense - this political component. García Márquez also wrote the sentence, "The Latin American unreality is such a real and everyday matter that it is completely confused with what is meant by 'reality'."

So it seems somehow Macondian - unreal - that President Uribe, despite the many scandals pointing time and again to him as accomplice or participant, enjoys surprisingly high levels of sympathy in the population. However, it is still open whether the proposed referendum for a constitutional amendment that would open to him the way for a third term, will be approved by the Constitutional Court. Critics think he is capable of doing everything to remain in power.

The Jesuit Fernando Torres is an employee of the organization "Kairos Educativo", an institution that was founded by the Salesians more than thirty years ago - then known as "Dimensión Educativa". It is oriented towards ecumenism and to Paulo Freire's pedagogy for liberation. "Kairos Educativo" works both in the field of theological reflection and practical training. It devotes itself to youth work and trains educators. Torres takes me to a demonstration by women from all over Colombia, where we meet Gloria Cuartas. In the nineties she was the most famous and most endangered mayor of Colombia. The then 33-year-old social worker was elected in 1994 to lead the people of Apartado in the north, the Caribbean strip of the department of Antioquia, one of the worst centers of violence and terror in those years. Her election was a makeshift solution - all the other (male) candidates were afraid of this position, and refused. The young mayor was dragged into the middle of the battle between paramilitaries and guerrillas for supremacy in the region. In an atmosphere of most brutal violence she tried to create a climate of solidarity and peaceableness. 1.200 people were murdered during her three-year tenure in Apartadó, of whom seventeen belonged to her close staff. "I've seen how around me children were beheaded and women were raped. I will never be the same woman as before, because what I have seen led me to a point from where the return to civil life is no longer possible." Politics was the only way to cope with the "inner pain", tells Gloria Cuartas, who after leaving office was working for the UNESCO network "Cities for Peace". In the parliamentary elections in mid-March she competes on the list of the left-wing opposition party Polo Democrático for a seat in the Senate.



Also the Jesuit Javier Giraldo, employee of the Ecumenical Commission Justicia y Paz, has for years tirelessly and fearlessly been complaining about the human rights violations. He accompanies and protects vulnerable people and communities, such as the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, a model within which the residents are strictly committed to political neutrality and non-violence, and persistently and systematically require the investigation of human rights violations and other crimes. Based on false testimony Giraldo has repeatedly been accused of defamation or alleged "collaboration with the guerrillas." The relationship between church leadership and head of state is too uncritical, Javier Giraldo complains. "At the last Episcopal Conference, they have celebrated the birthdays of Uribe, have congratulated the President, and have serenaded him!"

Colombia is a formal democracy with a right-wing authoritarian system and a very long tradition of using violence as a means of settling political conflict. The drug power and the power 'drug' time and again endanger developments of civil society. But there are always also - inspired by religion or humanism - movements for peace, for the observance of law and democratic rules, and for a humane, social society. The European Union could play an important role in supporting and protecting these movements, because Colombia attaches great importance to its image abroad. Until now, however, the respective efforts from Europe still have been too timid.


Further reading:
Jeanette Erazo Heufelder: "Gloria Cuartas. Bürgermeisterin für den Frieden", Göttingen 1999.
Werner Hörtner: "Kolumbien verstehed, Zürich 2007.
Raul Zelik: "Die kolumbianischen Paramilitärs", Münster 2009.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'